Enacted during Prohibition—and the Harlem Renaissance—the New York City Cabaret Law made it so any public establishment that served food and/or drink needed a license to allow musical entertainment and dancing. Like so many similar laws (see pushes for voter ID), proponents championed the initiative as a means of “keeping the peace.” Critics conversely saw how the extra cost and sheer absurdity of its enforcement targeted businesses that were owned and frequented by marginalized groups (whether race, sexuality, etc.). And since that law stayed on the books for almost a full century from 1926 to 2017, you can imagine the atmosphere of celebration born from its rescission. It was surely enough to earn a cinematic tribute, and writer/director Christina Kallas complies with Paris is in Harlem.
More than a fictionalized account of that moment, however, Kallas’ film looks to piggyback on the scene that was affected most: jazz clubs. She channels the Crash style of seemingly disparate characters who will inevitably come together at a moment of tragedy, their individual journeys unfolding to a jazzy score as split-screen separations allow fluid movement from one to the other. Sometimes we go back to experience a sequence from a different angle. Sometimes two angles of the same sequence are shown in tandem with a slight auditory delay. We follow the drama surrounding two college professors facing disciplinary action. There’s two young men debating the merits of petty theft. And, of course, Sam’s (Leon Addison Brown) well-known establishment as it readies for another night of low-key entertainment.
That’s where the film begins—or, perhaps more accurately, where it ends. Listen to Sam’s bartender Ike (Chris Veteri) too long and you won’t be able to tell the difference considering talk about Tralfamadorians believing all moments (past, present, and future) exist simultaneously. Everything that happened before is real because we remember it and everything happening right now is too because we’re living it. He wonders if everything still coming is real too since it’s going to happen. Ben (Vandit Bhatt) and Sila (Laura Pruden) shouldn’t have to worry about losing their jobs then because their fates are already sealed. Nothing they do will change it. Same with those young men upon finding a loaded gun. Why worry about getting caught for armed robbery when destiny already decided?
What seems like a throwaway philosophical quandary providing something to focus on while an active shooter scenario unfolds in the background ultimately gets revealed as a major crux to the entire project due to Kallas’ decision to rewind events. If our introduction to the film is actually its conclusion, seeing what occurs to get everyone in place for that nightmarish situation is therefore rendered inert. Right? At least, that’s what a fatalist would believe because time cannot be changed. What if it could, though? What if the gunshots we hear don’t happen when she finally brings us back to that moment almost two hours later? Is it possible? Is it unbelievably hopeful? Maybe and probably, but that’s the beauty of fiction. You bend reality to your thematic whims.
While that bending is great for what this night means for the Black and LGBTQ communities, however, it also has the potential to muddy waters in ways Paris is in Harlem can’t overcome. For instance: an early scene on campus shows an active shooter assembly with a white security guard bouncing statistics off faculty that clearly doesn’t want to hear it. He mentions how 97% of perpetrators are men, forcing Alis (Lauren Sowa) to question why he didn’t also add “white” and “straight” as clarifiers. Heated yet empty debate about racism and “reverse-racism” ensue along with opinions on mental illness being both a cause and excuse. To have all that before positioning a mentally unstable Black man (Souleymane Sy Savane) into becoming an active shooter isn’t mere coincidence.
Is it inherently a bad choice? No, not if you’re saying something through the juxtaposition. I can’t quite figure what that something is, though, since this isn’t an isolated incident. There’s also Ben arguing that he can’t be suspended for racism because POC (he’s Indian) can’t be racist. Sila vocalizes that the sexual harassment case lobbed against her can’t be real because the statute (Title IX) was meant to protect women, not men. She doubles-down on her double-standards kick by telling Michelle (Ellie Foumbi), a Black woman, that it’s harder being a white woman in twentieth-first century America than Black. Add Sam asking his kids’ babysitter to quit because he doesn’t want a white woman raising his Black kids and it all seems like provocation for provocation’s sake.
Kallas admits as much by having Ben defend his use of the N-word with the argument that context (he was quoting a Spike Lee film) allows it since Lee’s goal was to provoke. Rather than compile a list of double standards and partisan hot button topics to throw at the wall and see what sticks, she writes them all into her script in a way that allows them to cancel each other out. If the Black loiterer loudly bothering Sam’s customers can be the villain, the white cop who’s been enforcing the Cabaret Law for years can become the hero too. If everyone is allowed to voice their opinions dripping with privilege (and the experience of having none) without ever confronting their personal bias, nothing can actually be said.
And maybe that’s the goal. Maybe that’s the lesson. The resulting “both-sides” nature of it all simply leaves too much to be desired regardless. This is especially true considering an ending that reveals free will does in fact exist and, as such, can change hearts and minds in an instant thanks to the power of music and dance. It’s a beautiful notion, but one that comes a bit too late with way too much drama. I get the drama is meant to be a product of decades of harmony lost because of the law (through implicit segregation and overt discrimination) and thus its rescission brings about unbridled yet simplistically “colorblind” joy, but I’m not sure the end fully absolves the characters’ messy, emotionally charged politicization along the way.
Paris is in Harlem premiered at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.